Wednesday 3 August 2011

The Google brain and what it means for personal history

By Eve Edwards

I was amused and challenged by an article I read in the Guardian newspaper on the theme of the damage done to our memory by our frequent resort to Google to answer those nagging little questions. Apparently we are becoming ‘symbiotic’ with our computers, or, as I would put it, ‘cloud-sourcing’ our memories so that we know we don’t have to remember something accurately as so long as we ha
ve a crumb to follow the trail back home to the answer.
In short a Google brain means we are lazy and no longer can be bothered to have a proper filing system in our own brains, only half grasping our information.

This is a wonderfully modern dilemma and the article prompted me to wonder how much of my own personal history Google has taken over. I can date the first ‘lazy’ memory to at least fourteen years ago when I was singing my child to sleep. You know that moment – small hours of the morning, you are tired, want something soothing to send crying infant
back into slumbers and you find a song from your own childhood popping into your head. In my case it was ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ learned at Guide Camp round the fire. I could remember the first verse then came a bit unstuck.

Next day, I rushed to Google and found the rest of the verses for other nights so I didn’t have to drive myself crazy repeating the same words ad nauseam. Problem was: the words on Google that I found were slightly different from the version I learned in the 1980s in Epping Forest to the crackle of twigs and taste of instant hot chocolate. In the end, new version over-wrote my original memory and this is the one my children now sing.

So the question I have for those of you reading the blog is what should we do about it? Does it matter? I do feel more intelligent these days – able to answer questions that come up in my writing really quickly by a careful use of search engines, but is this at the cost of something else in my life, a detailed memory that I am ditching as my brain outsources part of its function?

I’m going to lie on a beach with no internet access and think about this – if I still can!

Eve Edwards's The Rogue's Princess (Razorbill) is out now in the UK, The Other Countess (Random House) out now in the US.


Nicola Morgan said...

The Google brain idea is akin to the fears that people had that the printing press would destroy our memories. It didn't - though it almost certainly changed how they worked, possibly for the worse but definitely allowing new skills and knowledge. The ancient Greeks etc seem to have had "better" memories. But what else could they not do? We don't have infinite brainpower or space, so if we're not using so much to remember things then we have more neural capacity to do other things. I know (feel) that the instant info-feeding has changed my working patterns but/and it has made me better at some things - multi-tasking, for example. And we should not underestimate how quickly we can rewire our neural networks to adapt a new skill. Five hours, in fact...

adele said...

Fascinating post, Eve and very interesting comment from Brain Expert, Nicola. I am reassured about the neural rewiring stuff but I think this all gets worse as you get older...everything slows down a bit and things which have no right to get lost, do get lost! I've wished more often than I can say that I had kept even a rudimentary diary through my life, just to help date certain occasions etc. I have desk diaries with appointments in them, but as for when a child did something or other, or which birthday was it when we went to that restaurant...that is all gone forever. Not that any of that really matters I guess but it would be nice to be able to check up on one's memories. Meanwhile have a good time on that internet free beach!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Delighted to hear our neural networks can adapt to a new skill in 5 hours. I went to a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago called the Museum of Memory and it showed all sorts of mnemonic devises used to jog memory. One fascinating device I remember is a grid or frame made of curved sticks and shells as a navigational device by the people of the Marshall islands in the late 19th century to help them remember swells and currents. The shells were the islands and the sticks the waves and currants. Perhaps Google can be thought of as a modern day mnemonic device that jogs our memory of things we know but have forgotten.
Having said that... I'd forgotten Land of the Silver Birch since I last heard it at age 13. It came flooding back with your mention... two whole verses... except I'd exchanged a mighty moose for a mighty wolf! It made me relive a whole era of childhood. Thank you Eve for a fascinating post. Enjoy your Google free holiday!

none said...

Eh, my memory is so defective I probably need the Google brain. I've never understood why we need to drill kids with dates and the like anyway. You can look up a date. We need to teach kids what you do with it.

One thing I have never forgotten is the skills my A Level History teacher taught me. Bless him.